The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

Well, this wasn’t the book I was intending to read right now! I was in the middle of a short story collection (Cortazar) which I was alternating with an Elizabeth Bowen, when I stumbled across this lovely Golden Age crime novel for 99p in the Oxfam. How could I resist? And as it’s a busy time for me at the moment, in life and at work, it’s exactly the kind of book I needed.

John Dickson Carr is of course the king of the locked room mystery. Although not the creator of the genre (that honour belongs to Edgar Allan Poe, although “The Big Bow Murder” is held to be the originator of the classic tradition), he took it and made it his own, producing 23 novels featuring his detective Dr. Gideon Fell, all of which were variations on the theme. “The Hollow Man” is judged to be one of his best, and indeed was once voted the best example of its kind ever – so I was naturally keen to read it.

“The Hollow Man” features two apparently insoluble crimes; one man, Dr. Grimaud, dies in a locked room which really has no way in or out at all. The chimney is no help, there’s no secret passageway, the window is high and there’s untouched snow on the ground below and the roof above. Grimaud has been threatened in front of a group of his friends by Pierre Frey, an illusionist, who is murdered the same night and his assassination is even more peculiar. He’s shot in the middle of a street (delightfully, just round the corner from Persephone Books’ home, Lambs Conduit Street) with two witnesses who can swear there was no one else there, there are no tracks in the snow and the weapon is found next to the body. It seems as though the killer must indeed have been an invisible or hollow man, because even Gideon Fell is struggling to find a solution.

The household of Grimaud is a quirky and interesting one: there is his housekeeper, Mme Dumont; his fiery daughter Rosette; and the scholar Drayman who has some connection with Grimaud going back a long way. In fact, the story proves to have long roots, and Fell, together with his colleague Superintendent Hadley, will have to do much digging to get to the bottom of things.

THM is a fabulous, and sometimes quite chilling read. There is reference to dark deeds from the past which is really rather spooky, and hints of the supernatural. Fell is an excellent detective, the supporting cast a nice variety (including Rampole, an American friend of Fell’s, and his wife) and there’s loads of drama, twists and red herrings. The solution is fiendishly ingenious and I defy any reader to solve it – which is why I don’t want to say too much about the plot because to spoil this treasure of a book would be a pity.

Authot picture c. National Portrait Gallery

The book is hugely entertaining, and it’s also notorious for one particular section. Towards the end of the book Carr treats us to a chapter where Fell expounds on the whole subject of locked room mysteries, their different types and solutions, and even has his detective remind the other characters and the reader:

‘But, if you’re going to analyse impossible situations,’ interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’

‘Because,’ said the doctor, frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.’

It’s a fascinating piece, and has apparently become something of a standard text to guide authors in the production of locked room mysteries!

So a wonderfully satisfying Golden Age read (and not bad for 99p). I read masses of green Penguins back in my 20s and I’m pretty sure Carr’s works were amongst them, though I can’t remember the titles. He was a prolific author; as well as his Fell stories, he produced numerous others under his own name and dozens as Carter Dickson. One of only two Americans admitted to the Detection Club, his books are obviously something special and this one one was so gripping I stayed up far too late at night as I really couldn’t put it down. Alas, I feel an urge coming on to read nothing but classic crime!!